120-degree heat, turf burns, and standing water on the field are just a few of the injustices the U.S. women's soccer team is enduring
When the U.S. women's soccer team stepped onto the field Monday to play their first match of the 2015 Women's World Cup against Australia, they were in it to win. And not just that match—the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT) is a favorite for the most prestigious title in soccer. But the act of stepping on the field wasn't as simple as it sounds, thanks to FIFA's inexplicable decision to schedule matches on artificial turf instead of grass—a move that may kill the team's dreams (and their legs!). Another issue? FIFA has never had the men's World Cup on turf—and has no plans to do so—making this another sad case of discrimination against women in sports. (Ladies still kick butt though! Here are 20 Iconic Sports Moments Featuring Female Athletes.)
Make no mistake about it: Athletes hate playing soccer on turf. (U.S. forward Abby Wambach summed up the team's feeling in an interview with NBC, calling the setup "a nightmare.") The problem? Artificial grass is nothing like the real thing—and it has long been thought to negatively impact the way games are played.
"The natural surface [grass] is friendlier on bodies and aids in recovery and regeneration. Turf is heavier and much harder on the body," says Diane Drake, former head women's soccer coach at George Mason University and Georgetown and founder of Drake Soccer Consulting. "In World Cup play, the amount of time between games is very small, so recovery and regeneration are crucial."
Turf also requires more stamina and athleticism. The artificial surface is "more fatiguing," which can have consequences beyond one game, says Wendy LeBolt, Ph.D., a physiologist specializing in women's soccer and author of Fit 2 Finish. "Resiliency and weather durability are the primary benefits of turf, and this is why so many fields are being put in. But there is also more give to the surface, which may sap energy."
The surface also changes how the game is played. "There are puddles everywhere with water bouncing into players' faces. You can see them spraying all over the place," says Drake. "Problems with heavier weighted passes [kicking the ball to where you want the receiving player to be, not where they currently are] for the less technical teams are visible already," she adds.
In addition, rubber-plastic turf doesn't allow players to turn, run, and maneuver the way they're used to, which can lead to injuries. "I've had multiple female players hurt themselves on turf, almost always uncontested without contact," Drake says. Women have some unique physiologic concerns too—a wider angle between our hips and knees, wider pelvises, and differently shaped femurs—which have all been linked to a greater risk of knee injuries. This means turf play may be even riskier for women than for men. (FYI: These are the 5 Exercises Most Likely to Cause Injury.)
"There have been biomechanical studies showing increased frictional forces with artificial turf compared to natural grass," explains Brian Schulz, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, CA. He adds that the increased friction increases injury risk because your foot is more likely to stay planted during a change of direction, causing the soft tissues of your leg to take the full impact of the force.
But the most notorious injury to date? Wicked "turf burns" from players sliding or falling on the ground, as demonstrated by this pic tweeted by U.S. forward Sydney Leroux:
And it's not just skin that's getting burned! Artificial surfaces heat up much faster (and get much hotter) than regular playing surfaces. This past week, the playing field has been an insane 120 degrees Fahrenheit—a temp which not only makes it difficult to play your best, but also raises the risk of heat stroke and dehydration. Indeed, FIFA's own published regulations say that modifications should be made if the temp is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
So why subject top-level athletes to such unfavorable conditions? After all, FIFA has never required a professional men's soccer match to be played on turf, much less the World Cup. Wambach called the turf problem "a gender issue through and through." Drake agrees, saying, "There's no question that Sepp Blatter [the controversial FIFA president who recently resigned after allegations of bribery, theft, and money laundering] has been pretty chauvinistic in the past." (He once suggested that women could be better soccer players if they "wore more feminine clothes, for example, tighter shorts.")
Several women's teams even sued FIFA over the artificial turf in 2014—but the suit was dropped after FIFA refused to budge from their position. What exactly is that position? According to a statement to the press delivered by FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, the turf is designed for safety and "is the best possible surface to enable everyone to enjoy a great footballing spectacle."
Safety and spectacle aside, LeBolt says the real concern should be respect for the athletes. "The 'pure game' is played on beautifully manicured grass, so in my opinion, if we are to know who is the best in the world, we should test them on the best playing surface," she says. "To suddenly change things so significantly would be like asking pro pitchers to throw from a bit further away or pro basketball players to shoot at a basket that's a different height. "
Still, Drake sees recent events (the lawsuit, Blatter's resignation, the growing social media backlash) as a sign that things are changing for women in soccer. "I think we will move in a different direction for the future and hopefully this never happen again," she says.
We hope so, as this injustice has got our blood boiling—and we're not even standing on a 120-degree field.